‘Wonder Boys’

A look back at literary-gold-turned-cinematic-gem, on the occasion of Director Curtis Hanson’s passing.

220px-OriginalWBposterThe best films are the ones that inspire you – to dance, to sing, to love, whatever’s your poison. Wonder Boys is a film which inspires me to write. I’ve seen this thing a dozen or so times, and every time I do, it is the genesis of writing something: either reflective on it, or a narrative inspired by its own words. ‘Words’ is the key idea here: Wonder Boys is a film about loving words.

In essence, the film depicts a weekend in the life of a novelist/lit professor. His wife has left him; he’s sleeping with (and has impregnated) his boss’ wife; his editor is in town, and a student of his latches on to him for guidance and friendship. He’s got the opposite of writer’s block, but not in a good way; he’s suffering from the sophomore blues and in more than a bit of a rut. That’s pretty much it.

The cast is note-perfect: from Michael Douglas giving a career-best, understated, funny turn as the schlubby, sloppy, unshaven and unkempt literature professor Grady Tripp; Robert Downey Jr playing his comedic gifts to the utmost, wrapping his lips around Steve Kloves’ dialogue and playing the lit agent Crabtree with smug relish. Those two have a tremendous onscreen chemistry, which you can only hope will lead to them reuniting on screen again at some point (the key moment would be when they’re at the Hi-Hat Club and improvising a story about the character ‘Vernon Hardapple’ they spot).

“Whenever I wondered what Sarah saw in me, and I wondered more than once, I always came back to the fact that she loved to read. She read everything every spare moment. She was a junkie for the printed word. And lucky for me, I manufactured her drug of choice.”

Tobey Maguire as James Leer – in part vulnerable, needy, the kid’s an attention-seeker with an obvious gift for fiction both on the page and off, whose love for old movies informs his lonesome existence. But he’s funny, too – Tripp finds him standing in the snowy cold outside the Chancellor’s house and asks him inside for the cocktail reception, as the kid must be freezing. ‘It’s colder in there!’. In the third act, Leer and Crabtree end up in bed together, and part of the film’s greatness is that the sequence is played like just any other. We’re not even sure of James is gay (Crabtree is certain of it, granted).

Rip Torn as Q is great in a smaller role, almost a cameo. But his delivery of the lines that Q has, all self-importance and bombast – the guy’s a blowhard – hints at some of the actor’s finer moments as Arthur on The Larry Sanders Show. Frances McDormand, just as good as ever – a stablemate, ever so watchable and funny. Then there’s Katie Holmes, who gives a sweet performance as one of Tripp’s students with a crush – it was testimony to the fact that she’s a fine actor who got swallowed up in tabloid horseshit when she married Tom Cruise. I also have a lot of time for Michael Cavadias as Miss Antonia Sloviak, who is ‘Tony’ once Crabtree loses interest, and he needs a ride home. It’s a small role, kind of thankless, but it’s beautifully written, in that Cavadias plays ‘Antonia’ as a ditz, but as Tony, eventually reveals genuine human insight and depth.

Also, Richard Knox as Vernon Hardapple. “That’s my car, motherfucker.”

Katie Holmes and Michael Douglas in 'Wonder Boys' (2000); a nuanced, subtle dramedy.
Katie Holmes and Michael Douglas in ‘Wonder Boys’ (2000); Curtis Hanson’s nuanced, subtle dramedy.

There are small moments, flavoursome hits that Hanson uses throughout. Music is a key – both the songs he uses through the soundtrack (Buffalo Springfield, Bob Dylan, Neil Young) and the soft, reflective piano, sometimes bouncy accordion score by Christopher Young. There’s a shot in the ‘morning after’ sequence, the morning after Crabtree throws a party at Grady’s house, where a discarded beer can rolls off the edge of a railing; Hanson cuts away to inside Grady’s room, and we hear the can hit the floor in the background. It’s just a faint sound, but it’s a minor detail. Call me weird, but I love that minor detail.

Michael Chabon’s book was the source material for the film, and he stands as an author who cannot put a foot wrong (read his Telegraph Avenue and Cavalier & Clay fer crying out loud). Everything fits into place, down to a small sequence set in Tripp’s ex-wife’s parents’ house. “It’s the kind of house you want to wake up in on Christmas morning,” he tells Leer. Perfect bit of set decoration there makes that particular line ring particularly true, as does the scene’s featuring the eminently watchable character actor Philip Bosco as Grady’s soon-to-be-ex-father-in-law. Hanson makes the most of the Pittsburgh locations; a grey industrial sea which the more hoi-polloi characters drive past on their way to discuss literature and life’s finer things.

Robert Downey Jr & Tobey Maguire.
Iron Man and Spider Man totally bone in this movie.

If we turn our attention back to 2000, it was not a red letter year at the movies. Gladiator (which was a fine, cut-above effort at a popcorn picture), took the top prizes at the Oscars. But as I’ve mentioned previously, it was this film, Almost Famous and High Fidelity which hit all the right notes for me. Wonder Boys always struck me as being the pinnacle of smart, adult dramedy. It’s not propelled by any kind of dramatic or narrative urgency, but more out of performance, character and as mentioned, dialogue. It’s just glorious really, and if you’re one to seek out the unsung gem (which this is; hardly anyone saw it), seek this one out. It won Bob Dylan an Oscar too, which is nice.

So, Curtis Hanson, who also made *The* finest modern noir since Chinatown in LA Confidential, has passed on. And again, we are gifted the opportunity to reflect on his life’s work, and mourn the loss of the source of joy. But not the joy itself.

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